What does it take to be a great leader?

“Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them.” - Joseph Joubert

Most Entrepreneurs, founders of companies and even people who had a –in their opinion- great product, service or business model idea which never materialized, will probably agree with this. Being a visionary and having great ideas alone is not enough to make things happen the way one dreams of. Other than a brilliant vision, it takes hard work, perseverance, dedication and in a lot of cases, taking risks, to make a vision, a dream, an idea come true.

This can not always be done by just one person, the genius, but takes the work and support of a lot of people. Oftentimes, the geniuses and visionaries in these day’s economy do not even have the necessary skills and expertise to materialize their ideas into actual products, services or businesses. To start and sustain a successful business these days, one needs to have valuable employees. That’s why Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said:

“Not the maker of plans and promises, but rather the one who offers faithful service in small matters. This is the person who is most likely to achieve what is good and lasting.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“…the one who offers faithful service…” obviously refers to an employee in this case. When talking about employees, this automatically leads to hierarchies, people being superiors of others, people giving orders and others following orders. And of course, a boss. Hierarchies have been existing for as long as there is life on this planet. It is not only in the human nature but in the nature of all living beings that spend their lives in groups. You will always find a leader and in some cases further hierarchies below him/her.

Of course, we want to focus on the human system of hierarchies here. The most prominent example for hierarchies is the military, because here you will find a lot of hierarchies, which are strictly regulated and demonstrated by the individuals. To make sure, everyone is aware of the hierarchy and the standing of the individual within the hierarchy, the uniforms even feature the ranks. Another example for hierarchies is our workplace. You will always find at least one boss and depending on the size of the company, further hierarchies, like head of department, project manager or others. This means that a lot of people are leaders of sometimes only one person and sometimes up to thousands of employees.

Being a leader, you will be responsible for a lot of things, more than you can handle on your own. That’s why you will have one or more persons working for you. The persons you are supposed to lead and in order to make life easier for yourself and to keep the persons working for you, you have to delegate work to these people. If you manage to perform the art of delegating tasks to perfection, you will do what Calvin Coolidge mentioned:

“One rule of action, more important than all others, is in never doing anything that someone else can do for you.”
- Calvin Coolidge

But delegating the right tasks to the right people is an art of its own. This is part of being a good leader. In big companies with a lot of hierarchies, obviously it’s highly unlikely, that all these leaders have got the necessary leadership skills which shows in a high fluctuation of personnel in some companies/departments. Asking people who quit their jobs for their reasons for leaving, you will probably find that the number one reason is the boss/superior. In second place might be the nature of the work they are doing. That means the reason why most people quit their jobs is because of the leadership they are under at work and because they are not enjoying the work they are doing. So, how can we overcome those issues and establish a more stable workforce in our company/department? Dwight D. Eisenhower once said:

“Leadership: The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
-
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Obviously, this would be the best case and can not always be achieved. But taking this as a guideline, what can it mean? Maybe in a lot of cases we should review our reasons to hire a particular person. I believe in most cases we look at the task this person is supposed to do, then we look at the certificates, the person has and check if the qualifications this person got at school match with the requirements of the job. Until now, a lot of people think, if these two match, this will be enough for the person to do the job. In a lot of cases this might be true. At least, having the right qualifications should lead to being able to do the job. But just because school enabled a person to do a job, does that actually mean, that this person will do the job as efficiently as (s)he could?

I am sure, a lot of us have experienced that people we hired for a certain job, either never lived up to their expectations and estimated potential or only for a very short time before their performance dropped and remained low until they eventually quit or we released them. Maybe when hiring people we should not exclusively concentrate on their qualifications but also on their previous jobs and especially their attitude. How does looking at their previous jobs help us to find out if a person will perform well in a position? As Eisenhower said, a leader needs to get people to do something they want to do themselves. Now, if a potential job-candidate has had similar jobs in the past and always dropped out after a short time, maybe it is not always because the superior or environment was bad, but maybe this person is simply not enjoying this particular job or not capable of doing it efficiently. So, maybe when we try to fill a position in our company/department, we should not focus too much on the qualifications. Of course, we always have to consider them since the applicant will still have to be capable of doing the job, but maybe we should look into other factors as well.

One factor would certainly be, if the applicant would possibly enjoy doing the job, we need to be done. Of course, we need to create an environment and job scope that can possibly be enjoyed. We can not just create a position which can hardly be enjoyed by anyone or put a person in an environment where performing would be difficult for any person. This is where the leader has to prepare and support. In a lot of companies, the false conclusion is made that employees always support the leader. In a company that has the intention to care for their employees and by that make their employees care about the company, the boss has to support his/her employees as well as receive strong support from them.

Besides the right skillset and the right dedication to fill a position in a company an applicant needs one more thing to be truly an asset to the company with commitment and a high potential for development. This is the right attitude to fit into the company culture. As mentioned before a good leader will create an environment in which a good employee feels comfortable in, but obviously, this can only be done to a certain extend and within the established and desired company culture. Only if an applicant can adapt to and adopt the company culture (s)he will be able to willingly perform to his/her full potential.

If you can fill a vacant position in your company with a person who fulfills all these requirements rather than just having the right certificates, you will have found someone who can be lead the way, Eisenhower mentioned. By “someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” So, once you have a team of individuals which are willing to do what the boss wants them to do, what else does the boss have to do? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once mentioned:

“What chance gathers she easily scatters. A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

According to this, a leader has to be able to choose a team of great people. The right people for the right job, as we have talked about before. But finding the right person for the right job, is one thing. As a great leader, you are also able to keep this person. Let’s face it, if you find someone really good at some point either other companies will gain interest in this person as well or the person itself will be aware of his/her value and start thinking about alternatives to his/her current position. What can a great leader do to avoid this?

Obviously, there are a lot of ways. First of all the monetary way. By paying the person more than the competition would. Other than that changes in the work environment can be made. But we want to focus on the leadership skills here. So, how do you lead a person in a way that binds him/her to your company/department?

There are a lot of different ways to lead a team. More or less authoritarian approaches can be chosen. A good leader might even be able differentiate and lead different people in his team in different ways. However, no matter who you work with, what culture, race or religion your employees are from, they will appreciate if you “rule” them the way, Ovid suggested:

“A ruler should be slow to punish and swift to reward.”
- Ovid

 

By being “slow to punish”, you give your employees the freedom and confidence to try new things and take chances. Like that you bring in new and fresh ideas into your business from different angles and backgrounds. Note that Ovid said “slow to punish”, which means that of course, punishment is still part of your leadership. It is clear that you can not lead without making your aware of their mistakes at all. If there was no punishment, the people you lead might repeat mistakes over and over again, because they do not see the need to change anything since there won’t be any punishment anyway. However, if you managed to find great people for your team as we talked about above, these sort of people won’t be repeating mistakes anyway. Which makes it easy for you to be slow in your punishment, since these people won’t give you much reason to punish them. Let your people make mistakes, but do teach them the lesson in case they have not learnt it from their mistake itself.

The other part of Ovid’s quote is “swift to reward”. Acknowledge and appreciate your employees’ achievements. Not every little achievement needs to be acknowledged in a monetary way, but let your people know that you recognize their successes, even small ones. For the bigger ones however, a monetary “thank you” will be highly appreciated by your employees. A simple “well done” can make your employees feel valued in the company and by their boss, but it will be even more impactful if accompanied by a monetary reward for outstanding achievements.

All this contributes to your employees’ satisfaction in their job and will keep them from thinking about leaving your company or department, because once they start thinking about changing jobs, you will not be able to effectively lead them anymore. As mentioned, one non-monetary way of keeping the spirits of your employees up is by empowering them. Empowering them to make their own decisions and perform tasks without asking for approval every time. This is even more difficult than choosing the right person for the right job, according to Napoleon Bonaparte:

“The art of choosing men is not nearly so difficult as the art of enabling those one has chosen to attain their full worth.”
- Napoleon Bonaparte

The way of ruling Ovid suggested obviously helps to enable our employees to attain their full worth. As a leader you have to give your employees the confidence and the authority to make their own decisions, within certain limitations, of course. The more freedom you can give them or the wider your can stretch this limitations, means the more your employees will be able to unfold their full worth and potential.

Of course, this takes us back to choosing the right people. Obviously, there are people out there who cannot work without clear guidelines. Some people need close supervision, simply because of their mentality. Not everyone enjoys to have a lot of freedom at work, but performs better within clear boundaries. On the other hand, there will be people taking advantage of their freedom. For example, by exploiting the freedom given to them, always looking for the easiest way out for themselves, rather than the best solution for the company and maybe even spending a lot of time at work doing everything but working. This means, that a leader has to choose people with the right attitude and mindset in order to be able to vastly empower them and thus tap on their full potential. As Thomas Jefferson said:

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
- Thomas Jefferson

According to this, the persons you are hiring have to have the right mental attitude which includes that their goals are in line with the company’s goals. In order to promote this, a company can do a few things, such as aiming for work-life-integration. This basically means, spending time with work-related matters which an employee can share and enjoy, for example with his/her family or friends. This can be done in a lot of ways, which can easily be figured out be a good leader, open to this idea or even left to the suggestion of the employees themselves. Important is, that these ideas are to the benefit of the company and at the same time to the benefit of the employee him/herself. Benefit of the employee can mean a lot of things in this case. It can mean a further development of his/her skills or even just spending an enjoyable time, not even feeling that what (s)he is doing is work-related.

This however, is only possible if the employee has the right mental attitude. Above mentioned persons, who only function within certain guidelines or take advantage of these opportunities, will not be able to understand and apply this or only to their own benefit, without considering any added value for the company. But even if we have people with the right mental attitude, these people need one more thing. Which leads us to a quote of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Willing is not enough; we must do.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The right mental mindset does not just include to think the right things and in the right ways, but to act upon this thinking. It does not help if our employees understand our ideas and culture but do not tap on it. In that case, a leader has to demand initiative from his/her employees. They should soon be able to adapt a culture in which they know how not just to realize and recognize the right and wrong things, but also act accordingly and correct the wrongs while sharing and performing the good. There should be no need to ask for this culture to be “lived” anymore once your employees have tried it, since they themselves will not just know about the benefits for themselves but have experienced them.

After all, you can not force your employees to do anything, not even for their own good. At least you should not. In some cases, you might be able to apply force on your employees, but you will soon find out that your employees will not be willing to endure this for long. They will escape your leadership and leave. Like Abraham Lincoln once said:

“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
- Abraham Lincoln

This shows clearly in the fluctuation that we see in a lot of companies these days. Depending on the economic environment, people might bear to work under an unwanted leader for a longer or shorter period of time. The better the economy, the shorter the period of time, people will be willing to spend under your rule. This applies especially for good people. Good employees will have an easier time finding a new job and thus not bear with bad leaders for long. Obviously, good people are the ones, we would like to bind to our company. That means, we have to offer them good leadership. A leader they choose to be lead by. John Churton Collins took this even further than “consent to be lead”, when he said:

“Always mistrust a subordinate who never finds fault with his superior.”
- John Churton Collins

This statement might sound extreme but makes perfect sense when we think about it. Everybody, even a leader, makes mistakes. After all, we are all human. A team of bright people, will surely notice your mistakes and let’s be honest, would you rather have your employees or your boss/customers, make you aware of your mistakes?

Empower your employees not just to make their own decisions, but also to question yours. Do not give them the authority to act against or ignoring your decisions, but allow them to criticize them and listen carefully to their criticism. Let them know that its heard and considered, no matter if you find it reasonable and decide to adjust based on their input or if you stick with what was initially planned in spite of their criticism.

If all these wise quotes and suggestions fail, you can try to convince your employees about the necessity to work, mentioning what Voltaire once said:

“Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.”
- Voltaire

DISCLAIMER: the following information is from http://en.wikipedia.org/

Joseph Joubert (7 May 1754 in Montignac, Périgord – 4 May 1824 in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne) was a French moralist and essayist, remembered today largely for his Pensées published posthumously.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749  – 22 March 1832) was a German writer, pictorial artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and polymath. He is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature.

John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (July 4, 1872 – January 5, 1933) was the 30th President of the United States (1923–1929).

Dwight DavidIkeEisenhower (October 14, 1890 – March 28, 1969) was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army.

Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 17/18), known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria.

Napoleon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide.

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (1777), the third President of the United States (1801–1809) and founder of the University of Virginia (1819). He was an influential Founding Father and an exponent of Jeffersonian democracy.

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in 1865. He led the country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and promoting economic and financial modernization.

John Churton Collins (26 March 1848 – 25 September 1908), was an English literary critic.

François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state.